- Posted by Ripple Effect
- On June 12, 2020
- 1 Comments
Story: Alex Haederle | Production: Melissa Blum | Photos: Provided By Amanda Crinks
Senior Project Manager Amanda Crinks met with us over Microsoft Teams to talk about her academic and career journey, building team cohesion, project management during COVID-19, and more.
Meet Amanda Crinks
She’s a Senior Project Manager with Ripple Effect, managing programs and project teams for two of our clients in the healthcare space. Amanda’s credentials range from an MBA in Healthcare Administration to a Master’s in Organizational Leadership, with Lean Six Sigma White Belt and PMP certifications to boot. How’d she get here? By trying her hand in different fields, learning, and being a compassionate team leader with a competitive drive, for starters. In the interview below, edited for clarity, Amanda recalls her education and path to becoming a project manager, how trust and openness builds cohesion and improves team performance, the impacts of COVID-19 on her job, and the influence of her mother (and Jeopardy!)
RIPPLE EFFECT: Tell us about yourself, Amanda. Where did you grow up, and what did you study in college?
AMANDA CRINKS: I grew up in Northern Virginia and went to undergrad at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, graduating with a degree in psychology.
Where did you go from there?
Well, the psychology degree left me with this “you need to go back to school feeling.” So after undergrad, I came back to Virginia and became a medical assistant. I did nursing for two years, thinking I wanted to be a physician’s assistant. But I quickly found that the patient day-to-day was very difficult for me to process. I didn’t love the hands-on part, but I loved the healthcare field.
So did you pivot in a new direction?
I did. I moved to Pennsylvania and started working in pharmaceutical research. That was an interesting experience, as it was a new field for me to learn about, but I found it was a bit harder to manage projects, and the environment was strange—odd hours, lots of travel. I started to feel like I needed another change, so I jumped at a chance to move to the Florida/Alabama area and started working in higher education.
That’s a big change in fields. What was that like?
I started doing marketing and outreach, scholarships, and project management—all of which were new. I learned a lot, but it still wasn’t a perfect fit for me. I really cared about healthcare, and I especially loved the project management aspects of my higher ed role, so that’s what motivated me to go back and get my MBA in healthcare administration.
Tell us about that. What was the MBA program like, and did it give you clarity on your career path?
Definitely. The MBA program, through Columbia Southern University, taught me the nuts and bolts of financial management, business administration and entrepreneurship, but most of all it made me realize that I’d need leadership experience to land the job I wanted. So that led me to pursue a second master’s degree in organizational leadership, from Waldorf University, and that taught me so much about how to handle and manage people through business shifts and changes.
When did you join Ripple Effect?
January of 2019. After my master’s program ended in 2016, I moved back to the DMV area and took a role with a IT consultant firm focusing in health related government agencies. That wasn’t quite my niche, but again, it gave me clarity that I loved the healthcare environment, and wanted to land with a company passionate about management, project organization, healthcare, and full of diverse people from different backgrounds. So I landed at Ripple Effect!
We’re thrilled you did. Tell us about your role here—how do you describe what you do?
I’m a Senior Project Manager, and I manage two client contracts: NIH’s Office of Research Facilities (ORF) and the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). While the roles differ slightly, in both I’m essentially the back-end programmatic support, performing contracting, hiring, and administrative duties and keeping the wheels turning so our on-site Ripple Effect staff can do their jobs. On the client side, communication is a key part of my job. I reach out to clients to offer support, as in “We’re working on this deliverable, what do you need?” and to ask for support, as in, “We’re understaffed and need more people.” So there’s a strategic communication and negotiation aspect to what I do.
What kind of impact do you aim to make with your teams and clients?
To make them cohesive: make our [Ripple] people look good and our clients look even better. I aim to build loyalty both to our teams and to our company; it takes a lot of work for people to buy into you as a leader, and into your larger group. With clients, it’s creating that loyalty. We work every day to prove that we’re skilled, responsive, high-performing, and that we have their interests at heart. Contracting can be a dog-eat-dog world, so putting client missions first is something we always prioritize.
How do you describe your leadership style? How does it help you make that impact you’re striving for?
I try to be very transparent. When you’re open with people about reality and don’t sugarcoat things or cover up bad news, it motivates people do the same. Essentially, it’s “I will be honest with you, and you be honest with me.” People I manage can call me when they’re stressed, angry, stuck on a task, or just need to vent. They have my confidentiality, and there are times where I need theirs as well. So there has to be a lot of trust.
Let’s talk for a minute about the COVID-19 pandemic. How has it affected your job in particular?
That first week [in mid-March, when the government’s stay-at-home order was implemented] featured more meetings than I’ve ever had in my life. I found that, as a project manager, I had to prioritize managing people’s emotions more than micro-managing project tasks. Personal challenges came out: issues that people were having, from fear to anxiety, I had to help deal with those. A particularly tough situation was defending some of our high-risk personnel [those more susceptible to COVID-19] against clients that wanted them to stay on longer. But that’s what I had to do to keep our team cohesive.
What are some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you’ve faced during COVID-19?
We hired two staff members the day before Maryland shut down. That was a hard transition; when you hire people who think they’re about to go on site one day, then can’t, it’s a shock. I had to help change course and solve unplanned problems—how we get these new staff their computers, government badges, and then onboard virtually. We knew the importance of getting them working quickly, to avoid disruptions in our client service, and HR made sacrifices to accommodate that.
Have you had to make changes in how you manage your teams?
Absolutely. Early on after we transitioned to fully remote work, I set up ‘sanity check-ins’ with our team members.
What are those?
It’s a group meeting every week where, for 30 minutes, we don’t talk about work. Instead, it’s “What are you up to? How are you holding up?” The conversations are great: everything from Tiger King to games we’re playing, books we’re reading. Everyone has a different home situation, so we come to this meeting to learn about one other. And it’s been great to bring that ‘water cooler conversation’ feeling back and give people a chance to decompress. We’re all human, going through this crisis together.
That’s great. How has the pandemic changed how you interact with your clients and manage their expectations? Has that gotten harder?
It’s definitely harder. Government agencies tend to be telework-equipped, but so many rely on face-to-face interactions. Technology often isn’t natural to them, and it may not occur to them to set up brief [Microsoft] Teams calls, so I’ve had to make more of an effort to reach out and schedule those proactively. Their priorities have also shifted in a more personal direction; clients are real people, so it’s been important to me to take a more personal touch to check in on them, understand their workloads, and be more respectful of their time.
Is there another world event or crisis that you’d compare your experience during this pandemic to?
The last government shutdown in early 2018. That was strange, in terms of my own experience. At the time, I was managing a contract of interns who were all about 20 years old. And when the government shut down, they were shut down and not paid. They had to earn money to eat and live, so what were they supposed to do? I felt terrible that I couldn’t help them. So I learned from that. When this pandemic hit, I thought back to that time and remembered that everyone has a different personal stake, interested in different pieces of the puzzle. It helped me better appreciate what staff are going through in their personal lives, and tailor my management to that.
Let’s turn back to project management for a few minutes. What are some of the skills that make a great project manager?
I’ll go with three ‘buckets’: Communication; Organization and Details; and Control and Power. First off, you have to know your audiences, from clients to stakeholders to staff, and know who to communicate what to. Organizationally, you have to always generate momentum and keep track of your administrative duties. How far along are you in a task? Where’s the timeline? How much money remains in the budget? You have to track all the details.
Power and Control? That might strike some as counter intuitive…
[Laughs] Do not take that literally! In fact, I mean the opposite. The goal should always be to improve an entire project, whether it’s just you or you plus 20 other people. If your goal is to control and assert dominance over a project, you’ll fail. You have to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses; if someone is suited towards one kind of task, put them in a position to be successful. Truly, it all comes down to transparency and knowing your people on both a professional and personal level.
Do you follow a specific project management methodology?
You can’t really do that in the government. In the PMP certification program I completed [through the Project Management Institute], I learned so many tools and strategies, but I can’t implement many of them due to hurdles outside of my control. And that’s ok! Having a big toolbox helps me recognize what works and what doesn’t. Lean Six Sigma is excellent; there are so many methodologies to pull from and adapt, but again, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
How do you know when a project is off track? What do you do when that happens?
Because I don’t spend every day with my staff, I have to trust them to alert me about shifts and challenges. If it’s a personnel issue—one person having a problem versus a whole project hang up—then I spend time to figure out, is there something going on in their personal life that we don’t know about? I’ll also consider, is this a one-off issue? Is this a training problem? Is there something they need that they’re not getting? We’ve had instances of both, and worked with our internal teams and staff to find solutions that give them support they need. And that helps people feel like they’re cared about.
What about larger-scale project or program problems?
When I’m dealing with timelines not being met, or financials getting off track, that usually requires a client conversation, and those can be hard. We had a project once that was under-burning like crazy, with tons of leftover money. That’s not a good thing, because unspent money is wasted value. So I got the team together for a brainstorm, developed recommended solutions and presented them to our client. And it worked out! We were able to grow the contract and turn what was initially a financial risk into a win-win for everyone.
Tell us about a project you’ve helped lead and manage that you’re particularly proud of.
Definitely Ripple Effect’s work on the NIH ORF project. It was my second week of work when I was pulled into this project, a contract I got to help Ripple win. It was a huge jump for me, not knowing our internal processes yet, no transition plan, no incumbent knowledge, no project resources to help me. But I worked with our CEO, Amy Bielski, and together we chipped away at a plan and just kept focusing on the right things, bringing in the right people, and we produced an amazing team.
What has the team accomplished since then? What makes it a pride point for you?
The client has been overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the amount of work our team has been able to perform. We came in during a time of uncertainty: no track record with the client and needing to prove our trustworthiness. The team was willing to embrace that ambiguity and shape something new, and to watch that kind of growth and confidence is amazing. They trust us to do everything now, don’t over-manage us, and give us the leeway to get creative and deliver what they need. To me, this project speaks volumes to how Ripple Effect hires and recruits people, as well as our honesty and openness.
Alright, we’ll wind this down on a personal note. Do you have a mentor? Someone special who has influenced your career?
This may sound cliché , but my mother. She works in government contracting and thus has a real understanding of the stresses I go through as a contractor. When I have issues with staff or a problem I don’t know how to solve, she’s the one I call for logical, experience-based solutions. She helps pull me out of the emotional aspects of decisions I have to make.
What’s a fun fact about you?
I’m an avid sports person. I’m very competitive, and grew up playing everything from baseball to basketball, volleyball to track and field. I actually played soccer at Georgia Tech. Not to sound arrogant, but if you play a sport, you probably want me on your team.
We’d certainly draft you, if you didn’t work here already. Tell us something we don’t know.
I watch Jeopardy! every day. I grew up watching it with my grandparents, and Alex Trebek is just perfect in every way. His battle against cancer has been so inspiring to me. But most of all, the show keeps my mind young and fresh.
Any final words of wisdom for fellow or aspiring project managers?
You cannot earn trust in a day. If people don’t know you or what you stand for, you won’t have that trust. That’s why I take the time to listen and ask people about their jobs. When you can listen without an agenda, you’ll be surprised and humbled by how much it can help you understand your staff and understand where they want to go.
Make sure to check out Amanda’s LinkedIn article, “Lessons for Young Managers,” which features some of her best lessons learned working in project management over the years. Are you inspired by Amanda’s story, or want to ask her a question about job searching and career advice? Reach out! Leave a comment below and we’ll get in touch.